Scarcity sustainability and marginality

There are important differences between the views, presented above, of natural limits by two contemporary Marxists. O'Connor concentrates on the theme of political economy and seeks to introduce the matter of political ecology only and always in relation to economic accumulation: hence a second contradiction of capitalism is proposed in a tension between the development of the forces and relations of production and the conditions ofproduction. Thus the basic shape ofhistorical materialism is here extended. Benton is bolder in his attempt to reconstruct, rather than extend, historical materialism. Although he does note that Marx theorises the theme of the conditions of production, he argues that the standard Marxist account of the labour process is too narrow. Furthermore, the matter of cultural resources for engaging with ecological crisis, a factor largely omitted in O'Connor's account, is stressed by Benton. Hence Benton proposes the reconstruction of historical materialism.

Of what use is this discussion for a political theology of nature.? We are able now, I think, to reconsider the matter of scarcity. One reason why most of us are environmentalists now has to do with the sense that crucial resources - non-renewable sources of energy, clean air and water, safe working conditions, good schools - are felt to be in short supply. This despite the fact that our culture is very creative and has already secured the potential for providing the basic levels of subsistence many times over.34 One way a sense of environmental unease presents itself in the North is, objectively, through the anxiety regarding overpopulation and, subjectively, in potential parents' anxieties as to whether they should have more than one, or any, children. And this matter is present in political ecology: for instance, population reduction is part of the deep ecology platform.35

34. William Leiss, 'The Domination of Nature', in Merchant (ed.), Ecology, pp. 55-64 (p. 60).

35. We saw in chapter 3 that population reduction is one of the eight points of the 1984

platform of deep ecology. As northern populations are already reducing, this position may

Marx and Engels confronted the problem of scarcity in the theory of Malthus; contemporary Marxists, as David Harvey has noted, also confront the contemporary resurgence of the theory in neo-Malthusianism. Indeed, it is a long-running show: although it emerges with full force in the nineteenth century, there were important precursors to Malthusian-ism in the eighteenth century.36 What, then, is the 'Malthusian problem'.? Harvey presents it this way: 'Passion between the sexes (a self-realization argument) produced population growth beyond the natural capacities of the earth's larder and emancipation from poverty, war and disease was necessarily frustrated as a result. The drive for self-realization automatically thwarted any hopes for emancipation from material want.'37 Clearly here is presented the theme of natural limits. I want now briefly to present Harvey's reading of Malthus and his rather brief commentary on the work of Benton and O'Connor.38

It is important to note, says Harvey, that Malthus himself derives his argument from two basic deductive principles: 'food is necessary to the existence of man and the passion between the sexes is necessary and constant'.39 The more recent neo-Malthusian argument operates from the same principles yet within a technological context. Thus, the relation between population and ecoscarcity is noted, but also the fact that technological productivity can mitigate but not overcome the connection. Harvey helpfully notes that Malthus' argument is class-based, part of which is well known: support for the poorest bucks the natural law that food is scarce and cannot support a steadily increasing population. Yet Malthus also argues that the wealthy are charged with the task of consumption. For, if the wealthy do not consume, then there is a threat to capital accumulation: the economy requires a steady demand for goods.

The same argument is employed today: in order to ensure the smooth working of the international economy, the wealthier nations should be encouraged to consume as much as possible, preferably in an international zone offree trade, in order to ensure that a demand for goods from other parts of the world is maintained. In the background may also be detected function as code for the reduction of southern populations. For a sustained critique of the 'population problem', see Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, ch. 7.

36. Clarence Glacken, Traces on theRhodian Shore:Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 623f.

37. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, p. 139.

38. Note here that I am not concerned to treat Malthus directly but rather to consider the treatment by socialist ecology of Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism.

39. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, p. 141.

the - finally, racist - view that the South is required to produce some of the goods which support the consumption of the North but that the South's own internal economic difficulties - including the pressure on environmental goods - is the result of overpopulation, economic mismanagement, 'innate' propensity to violence, etc.

That such a position - both in its Malthusian and neo-Malthusian forms - is illogical needs to be noted. What, we may ask, is the relation between population growth and ecoscarcity amongst the working classes/the South and the consumption among the upper classes/the North.? Would not one obvious way forward be to invite consumption by the working classes/the South? Malthus, in Harvey's view, has a double response to this question. First, in fact the upper classes have a way -through frugality - of avoiding the imperatives of population growth and ecoscarcity. Second, capitalists will not wish to sell goods to their workers: in other words, workers are the source of exploited worker power, not consumption.

In a sense, too, the same position is articulated today: the North, in its reduction in the growth of population, has shown itself able to emancipate itself from Malthus's law: it accumulates rather than procreates! In addition, only the wealthy can truly accumulate: capitalism turns upon high-value consumption which only the North can engage in. The self-serving character of such an argument is all too apparent. In rejecting such arguments, Harvey appeals to Marx. We should note that included in the appeal is the aside that 'Marx ... had a profound respect for the qualities of nature and the relational-dialectical possibilities within it.'40 Yet Harvey explicitly rejects the ecoMarxist turn as a sad capitulation to capitalistic arguments. Even for Marxists, Harvey reports, 'the universality of "natural limits" and the deeper appeal to "natural law" as inherently limiting to the capacity to meet human desires, is now increasingly treated as an axiomatic limiting condition ofhuman existence'.41 Harvey's constructive proposal, however, falls behind his earlier commitment to the independence of nature. It is worth quoting his conclusion against the notion ofecoscarcity at length:

To declare a state of ecoscarcity is in effect to say that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our state of knowledge, our social goals, cultural modes, and technological mixes, or our form of economy, and that we are powerless to modify either our material practices or

'nature' according to human requirements. To say that scarcity resides in nature and that natural limits exist is to ignore how scarcity is socially produced and how 'limits' are a social relation within nature (including human society) rather than some externally imposed necessity.42

Of course, the warning is salutary: scarcity must be construed socio-historically and not simply as a natural fact. Limits are a social relation and society may be reshaped according to human requirements. Yet the crucial issue remains unattended: do not human requirements need to be informed by a dialectical interpretation of humanity-nature which ensures that human requirements incorporate nature's requirements.?

The problem needs to be stated differently from Harvey's formulation. The issue is neither agency nor social production but rather whether the measure of human advance is only the human or whether it is the human in dialectical relation to nature. Thus Harvey is correct when he writes:'... all debate about ecoscarcity, natural limits, overpopulation, and sustainability is a debate about the preservation of a particular order rather than a debate about the preservation of nature perse'.43 However, the issue which Harvey fails to tackle is whether or not the overcoming of this current capitalist order involves the construction of a social order founded on a society-nature dialectic. 'Nature' becomes a mere cipher in Harvey's account rather than a material presence. And the movement of the dialectic is discovered to be conservationist rather than preservationist: in the dialectic, the human is privileged.

What more can be said from within the resources of socialist ecology on this matter of scarcity? As already noted, Harvey dismisses the work of Benton and O'Connor as capitulating to the current discussion on scarcity and limits. Yet, given the above presentation of their views, this seems a hasty judgment. Indeed, their work provides, in my view, important resources on which Harvey could draw.

First of all, we should note that Ted Benton's work offers a way of making more complex the dialectical process. To the productive process construed as transformative, Benton adds two further ways of construing production processes: eco-regulative and extractive. The premise of such an enlargement is that Marxist theory needs to be reframed to allow for the logic ofcooperation and interchange between humanity and nonhuman nature to be recognised more clearly. The second point made by

Benton points towards the ecological reconstruction of Marxism elaborated in O'Connor's work. Benton recommends that each mode of production should be analysed for its 'contextual sustaining conditions and liability to generate naturally mediated unintended consequences'.44 This is to attribute the problem of the unequal distribution of social goods to neither industrialisation nor the effects of increasing population. Benton's contribution is to remind us that the fecundity of nature resides in part in its own tendencies, regulative processes and systemic feedback loops. Nature is always capitalised nature; and capitalised nature is always second nature. However, that does not mean such capitalised nature does not relate to a first nature, as yet not capitalised, with its deep structures, tendencies and processes.

Further, one way of interpreting O'Connor's work would be to acknowledge that he has indeed found a way of thinking in a Marxist - and anti-Malthusian - fashion about 'scarcity' which supports directly some of the emphases of Harvey's work. Recall that O'Connor identifies three conditions of production: external, physical conditions; personal conditions of production; and the communal, general conditions of production. By means of such conceptuality, can we discern ways in which the operations of capitals destroy their own conditions of production and thereby harm potential for profitable accumulation.? According to O'Connor, the answer is an emphatic, 'yes!'

The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature . . . This line of thinking thus also applies to the 'personal conditions of production... laborpower' in connection with capital's destruction of established community and family life as well as the introduction of work relations that impair coping skills and create a toxic social environment generally.45

In my view, O'Connor here presents the root of the social production of scarcity ofwhich Harvey writes. Furthermore, there is here a sense ofthe ways in which external physical operations have their own proper spheres ofregulative action.

44. Benton, 'Marxism and Natural Limits', p. 175.

45. O'Connor, Natural Causes, p. 166.

We have, then, the introduction of'scarcity' into the theory of economic crises in a Marxist, not a neo-Malthusian, way. At issue is not the relation between food production and population, nor a technologically mediated version of the same relation, but instead a reading of how capitalism relies upon nature to secure its profits and how, furthermore, in the process of accumulation, it degrades its own conditions. Here O'Connor proposes that capitalism under produces: the failure to maintain the conditions of production is precisely a feature of capitalist underdevelopment. Given that development is uneven, any socialist transformation of capitalist economic forces and relations will also have to attend to the ways in which environmental clean-up, supportive family life and good education, and the costs of traffic congestion and urban degradation - to give a few examples - all require urgent attention.

The theme of this section is scarcity. In affirming the Marxist rejection of the relation between population and the availability of food, we have noted that too Promethean a stress should not be placed on the correct judgment that scarcity is a social limit. If capitals do indeed destroy the conditions of their own production, then these conditions may be impaired to such a degree as to create significant resistance to any liberatory, socialist, project. In order to theorise the social construction of limits - the capitalist production of nature - together with an account of the reality of natural processes, we may conclude that scarcity should be understood as 'marginality'.

To what does the concept of marginality refer.? A compressed answer is: the placing ofnature - here referring to the conditions ofproduction -to the margins. It is not natural scarcity with which we have to deal but rather natural marginality. Such conditions are to be considered not as scarce but marginal: nature is treated both as free tap and sink, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power are overlooked as the environmental infrastructure is degraded in an attempt to increase the profitability of capitalism. In this manner, capitalism displaces its problems to the social and natural margins. This conclusion is ofsome importance both for Christology, in which the marginality of nature is connected with the marginality - that is, the cross - of Christ and for the marginality of the place called Church. There will be explicit discussion of both points in chapter 9. More generally, the theme of marginality runs through part III: facing central Christian themes of the abundance of God and the goodness of creation, a political theology of nature resists the construal of scarcity in apolitical ways, such as by reference to a stingy or mean nature. Scarcity as marginality contains two truths: that the scarcity of goods is a social phenomenon and that such scarcity forces the use of nature's resources in exploitative ways. Which is to say that natural limits are always social limits, and vice versa. Any redirective and restitutive effort against marginality must reckon with both themes, as will be demonstrated through the Christology and pneumatology of part III.

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